Nowthen weighs the price of police after sheriff's ultimatum

Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart
Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart, shown here on Oct. 24, 2011, says Nowthen, Minn., is the only city in the county with neither a police department nor a contract with his office. "If one community is not contributing then certainly there's not give and take," Stuart said. "There's just give."
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Residents of this fledgling city half an hour northwest of Minneapolis have a painful choice to make this fall:

Pay as much as 27 percent more in property taxes or give up what the city council calls "police protection as we know it."

In most communities struggling with taxing and spending decisions this year, attention focuses on things like schools, street maintenance, parks and libraries. But in a few places, even public safety, the largest single expense item for Minnesota cities and typically the last thing to be considered for cuts, is under scrutiny.

Residents in Nowthen will take it up Thursday night at a public meeting, and the city council will decide next month whether the city's 4,443 residents — who tend to be conservative, low-tax voters — can get by with only emergency law enforcement services.

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Nowthen doesn't have a police department. Ever since the 1800s, when this was just a square of farmland called Burns Township, people have depended on the Anoka County Sheriff to keep the peace.

It's one of eight local governments in the county that do that. But it's the only one that doesn't pay the sheriff's department for dedicated patrols.

"Where that becomes a concern for us is when all of these surrounding communities are paying for law enforcement coverage and yet we continue to provide that service for them for free," Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart said.

Nowthen's residents pay county taxes, of course. But the other cities pay anywhere from $40,000 to $2.6 million a year on top of that. In exchange they get guaranteed patrol hours every week.

Past sheriffs have tried to get Nowthen to sign a contract like that, and town leaders always refused. But this year, Stuart issued an ultimatum. Either Nowthen starts paying for patrols, or his office cuts back their service to the bare minimum required by state law.

"Ultimately the city council will need to decide to move forward with a contract with us or with somebody else, or to not do anything," Stuart said in an interview. "They also would need then to decide: Is this community where public safety is not a top priority a place where people would want to have a business, would want to raise their families, or would even want to pass through."

State law requires sheriffs to provide basic service throughout their counties. Deputies have to respond in life-or-death situations. But trespassing, noise complaints and even burglaries aren't necessarily emergencies.

Graphic: Cost of sheriff calls in Anoka County
Of the Anoka County cities relying on the sheriff for law enforcement, Nowthen has the fewest calls per person.
MPR Graphic/Nathaniel Minor

A contract with the sheriff would cost Nowthen about $250,000 a year. Stuart offered the city a 50 percent discount for the first year, but even that represents a huge cost for a city whose annual budget is just over $1 million. Stuart gave Nowthen a deadline of Jan. 1.

"He hit us broadside with that," City council member Harlan Meyer said. "Everyone in the room was in shock."

Meyer is hoping the town can get a cheaper proposal from a neighbor, but either way Nowthen is looking at a huge tax increase.

"Whether it's $100,000 or $200,000, it has to be paid for," Meyer said. "I just don't feel in my own mind, in my own heart that we can go without any protection at all."

But Meyer knows any tax increase will be a tough sell with the citizens.

Two years ago, the council sent surveys to all the houses in town. The old sheriff hadn't taken such a hard line, but the issue was essentially the same: Should we raise taxes to pay for better police protection?

More than 150 residents responded. Three quarters of them said, 'no.'

Many residents think they'll be fine even if the sheriff cuts back service.

"I think there's enough people out here that are independent enough to tell him to go chuck it," longtime resident Dan Swanson said. "When we were a small farm community, I know those old farmers would have told him that."

Nowthen is more bedroom community than farm town these days.

Greenberg Implement, which has sold tractors here since 1938, does almost as much business selling lawn mowers these days.

The population has doubled since Swanson moved here 24 years ago. In 2008 Nowthen officially changed from a township to a city. Sheriff Stuart says that transition is a signal that Nowthen needs to take more responsibility for the cost of public safety.

Cities all over Minnesota are wrestling with county sheriffs over how much police protection they need, and who should pay the bill.

"That is creating some friction between cities and counties," said Anne Finn, assistant intergovernmental relations director for the League of Minnesota Cities. "But the bigger issue is, really, that there's not enough revenue to go around."

That friction will be on display Thursday night when Sheriff Stuart fields questions at a public forum in Nowthen.